How did the planets form?

Animation of the 3-D shape of planetesimal Arrokoth. (Credit: Roman Tkachenko, NASA)

The latest addition to knowledge of the Solar System looks a bit like a couple of potatoes that have lain together and dried over several years. It also has a name – Arrokoth – that might have been found in a novel by H.P. Lovecraft. In fact Arrokoth meant ‘sky’ in the extinct Powhatan language once spoken by the native people of Chesapeake Bay. The planetesimal was visited by the New Horizons spacecraft two years after it had flown by Pluto (see; Most exotic geology on far-off Pluto, Earth-logs 6 April 2016). It is a small member of the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies. Data collected by a battery of imaging instruments on the spacecraft has now revealed that it has a reddish brown coloration that results from a mixture of frozen methanol mixed with a variety of organic compounds including a class known as tholins – the surface contains no water ice. Arrokoth is made of two flattened elliptical bodies (one 20.6 × 19.9 × 9.4 km the smaller 15.4 × 13.8 × 9.8 km) joined at a ‘waist’. Each of them comprises a mixture of discrete ‘terrains’ with subtly different surface textures and colours, which are likely to be earlier bodies that accreted together. On 13 February 2020 a flurry of three papers about the odd-looking planetesimal appeared in Science.

The smooth surface implies a lack of high-energy collisions when a local cluster of initially pebble sized icy bodies in the sparsely populated Kuiper Belt gradually coalesced under extremely low gravity. The lack of any fractures suggests that the accretions involved relative speeds of, at most, 2 m s-1; slow-walking speed or spacecraft docking (McKinnon, W.B. and a great many more 2020. The solar nebula origin of (486958) Arrokoth, a primordial contact binary in the Kuiper Belt. Science, article eaay6620; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6620). The authors regard this quiet, protracted, cool accretion to have characterised at least the early stages of planet formation in the Outer Solar System. The extent to which this can be extrapolated to the formation of the giant gas- and ice worlds, and to the rocky planets and asteroids of the Inner Solar System is less certain, to me at least. It implies cold accretion over a long period that would leave large worlds to heat up only through the decay of radioactive isotopes. Once large planetesimals had accreted, however that had happened, the greater their gravitational pull the faster other objects of any size would encounter them. That scenario implies a succession of increasingly high-energy collisions during planet formation.

This hot-accretion model, to which most planetary scientists adhere, was supported by a paper published by Science a day before those about Arrokoth hit the internet (Schiller, M. et al. 2020. Iron isotope evidence for very rapid accretion and differentiation of the proto-Earth. Science Advances, v. 6, article eaay7604; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay7604). This work hinged on the variation in the proportions of iron isotopes among meteorites, imparted to the local gas and dust cloud after their original nucleosynthesis in several supernovas in the Milky Way galaxy during pre-solar times. Iron found in different parts of the Earth consistently shows isotopic proportions that match just one class of meteorites: the CI carbonaceous chondrites. Yet there are many other silicate-rich meteorite classes with =different iron-isotope proportions. Had the Earth accreted from this mixed bag by random ‘collection’ of material over a protracted period prior to 4.54 billion years ago, its overall iron-isotope composition would have been more like the average of all meteorites than that of just one class. The authors conclude that Earth’s accretion, and probably that of the smaller body that crashed with it to form the Moon at about 4.4 Ga, must have taken place quickly (<5 million years) when CI carbonaceous chondrites dominated the inner part of the protoplanetary disc.

See also: Barbuzano, J. 2020. New Horizons Reveals Full Picture of Arrokoth . . . and How Planets Form. Sky & Telescope

Most exotic geology on far-off Pluto

About 9 months ago NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the binary dwarf planets Pluto and Charon more than 9 years after launch. Everyone knew they would be frigid little worlds but the great risk was that they might turn out to be geologically boring. The relief when the first images finally arrived – New Horizons’ telecoms are pretty slow – was obvious on the faces at mission control. Even non-Trekkies, such as me, will be thrilled by the first in-depth, illustrated account (Moore, J.M. and 41 others 2016. The geology of Pluto and Charon through the eyes of New Horizons. Science, v. 351, p. 1284-1293), part of a five-article summary of early findings; the other 4 are on-line and scheduled for full publication later (summaries in Science, 18 March 2016, v. 351, p. 1280-1284). A gallery of images can be seen here and an abbreviated summary of the series here.

Pluto imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)
Pluto imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

They are astonishing places, even at a resolution of only about 1 km (270 m for some parts), and only one fully illuminated hemisphere was imaged for each because of the short duration of the fly-by. Pluto is by no means locked in stasis, for one of its largest features, Sputnik Planum, is so lightly cratered that is must be barely 10 Ma old at most. It is a pale, heart-shaped terrane dominated by smooth plains, which have a tiled or cellular appearance, with flanking mountains up to 9 km high that appear to be a broken-up chaos. Much of it is made of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. The dominant nitrogen ice has low strength which accounts for the large area of very low relief. The highly angular mountains are water ice that is buoyant and stronger relative to the others making up Sputnik Planum. Across the plain are areas of pitting and blades that seem to have formed by ice sublimation (solid to gas phase transitions) much like terrestrial snow or ice fields that have begun to degrade, and there are even signs of glacier-like flow.

4 Ga old cratered, upland terranes surrounding Sputnik Planum display grooved, ‘washboard’ and a variety of other surface textures reminiscent of dissection. The may have formed by long-term lateral flow (advection) of nitrogen ice and perhaps some melting. It is in this rugged part of Pluto that colour variation is spectacular, with yellows, blues and reds, probably due to deposition of hydrocarbon ‘frosts’ condensed from the atmosphere. That Pluto is still thermally active is shown by a few broad domes with central depressions that suggest volcanism, albeit with a magma made of ices. Areas of aligned ridges and troughs provide signs of tectonics, possibly extensional in nature.

Charon imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)
Charon imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

Charon  shows little sign of remaining active and capable of remoulding its surface. The hemisphere that has been imaged is spectacularly bisected by a 200 km wide belt of roughly parallel escarpments, ridges and troughs with a relief of about 10 km. Superimposed by large craters the extensional system probably dates back to the early history of the outer Solar System. Dominated by water ice it seems that Charon’s surface may have lost any more volatile ices by sublimation and loss to space. This suggests that superficial differences between two small worlds of similar density may be explained by Charon’s lower mass and gravitational field, resulting in the loss of its most volatile components that partly veneer the surface of Pluto.

Being hugely distant from any other sizeable body it is likely that the energy used to form cryovolcanic eruptions and deform the surface of both dwarf planets is due to internal radioactivity. Their similar mean density around 1.9 implies rocky cores that could host the required unstable isotopes. Being the only Kuiper Belt objects that have been closely examined naturally suggests that the rest of the myriad bodies that clutter it are similar. There are currently as many as 9 other sizable bodies suspected of eccentrically orbiting the Sun in the Kuiper Belt, including one that may be ten times more massive than Earth – a candidate for a ninth planet to replace Pluto, which was removed from that status following redefinition in 2006 of what constitutes a bona fide planet.